LOS LUNASWhile some may describe him as a man of small physical stature, no one can doubt the size of James Garley’s heart was immense.  

After a lifetime of advocating for veterans and their families, fighting to ensure they received their benefits, ensuring their service was recognized, Garley, 77, died peacefully at the family home on Garley Lane in Los Lunas on Sunday, April 7. 

His wife of 36 years, Rosie, looks around the living room where James spent his last days. Everywhere are reminders of his dedication and service — the yellow vest he wore proudly as a lifetime member of the Daniel D. Fernandez Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9676, as well as the heavier jacket for cold months, both bearing the VFW emblem. His cover sits on a counter in front of a display of his accolades. 

News-Bulletin file photo
James Garley held every officer’s position prior to becoming commander of the Daniel D. Fernandez VFW Post 9676, a position he held with the exception of a few years, from 1987 until his health forced him to step down in 2018.

A Quilt of Valor, printed with his years of service and duties during his time in the U.S. Army is folded on a nearby chair.  

“I loved him. I loved that man,” Rosie said. “I enjoyed every step with him.” 

Those steps together started when they both worked on Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. James was part of a painting crew assigned to paint Rosie’s office. An all-day job, the two began talking, quickly realizing they both grew up in Valencia County — she in Belen, him in Los Lunas.  

The next day, a dozen red roses were delivered to Rosie, along with a lunch invitation to the now-closed Sirloin Stockade on Gibson Avenue.  

During that first lunch together, James told her he was “father and mother to his children,” a not-so-subtle hint that he was single. While they were dating, James sent a dozen roses to Rosie every week, a habit the men in her office soon asked him to stop. 

“They told him their wives would start to expect that, too,” she recalled with a chuckle. 

Both veterans, James and Rosie are lifelong members of VFW Post 9676. James held every officer’s position prior to becoming commander, a position he held with the exception of a few years, from 1987 until his health forced him to step down in 2018. 

James enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 17 years old and served a 12-month tour of duty in Vietnam.  

Submitted photo
James Garley enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 17 years old.

Rosie, at age 18, chose the United States Marine Corps over beauty school, and later served one year in the New Mexico Air National Guard. 

As post commander, James led local veterans in community service projects, taught numerous packs of Cub and Boy Scouts how to properly fold, present and dispose of U.S. flags, fundraised for scholarships for local students and was a fixture in local parades.  

He was a huge advocate of instilling patriotism and civic service in the youth of Valencia County, making sure students knew about the VFW’s Voice of America and Patriot Pen competitions.  

During his time in the Army, James earned the Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Good Conduct Medal and Sharpshooter (with M-14 Weapon). He was a motor pool sergeant of a transportation company and responsible for 125 trucks.  

When he returned from service, he attended New Mexico State University and earned a degree in elementary education. However, James chose a career as a painter — which led to him meeting Rosie — and retired from civil service after 20 years at Kirtland.  

When he and Rosie came to Los Lunas after they were both honorably discharged from their respective branches of service, the most logical thing to do was join the local VFW post.  

When they were honored as the Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Citizens of the Year in 2008, the couple admitted they weren’t initially very active members with the organization. That all changed in 1984 when James became aware that the post was at risk of losing its charter due to not fulfilling its mission of public service. James led the charge, reaching out and recruiting more than 100 members in order keep the post going. 

News-Bulletin file photo
James and Rosie Garley were named Valencia County News-Bulletin’s Citizens of the Year in 2008 for their dedication to local veterans and the VFW post.

“I don’t think this post would be here today without him,” said Frank Gurule, post member and lifelong friend to James. “He kept it alive. James was the spirit.” 

Current Post Cmdr. Chet Pino and Post Quartermaster Jack Lovato both agreed, saying James was someone with the grit and determination, the heart and compassion to serve the veterans and families of his community.  

Lovato was one of the many veterans and friends who visited James at his Los Lunas home during his time in hospice care. Just two days before he died, Lovato paid him a visit. 

Because he was unable to speak loud enough to be heard across the room, Lovato had to get close to James to hear the question he was trying to ask. 

“I just really couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘How did Operation Tiny Tots go?’” 

The “operation” was a community outreach project to gather infant care items for local families the post hosted in March. Although not the post commander, James was still staying in the loop, making sure things were running smoothly for his post and community. 

James and other members of the post would often visit veterans for pinnings to acknowledge their military service. The pinnings often took place in veteran’s homes or when they were in the hospital or receiving hospice care.  

Rosie remembers James doing many pinnings on his own, even pinning a veteran posthumously before a funeral service. 

“We would go out there and I always remember the kindness the tenderness,” Lovato said. “He’d always say a few words. He always seemed to know a little bit about the individual.” 

Submitted photo
James Garley, at left, was a fixture at local parades as part of the color guard for the Daniel D. Fernandez VFW Post 9676 in Los Lunas.

The son of a World War II veteran, Eloy Garley, Lovato said James was always the kind of person who was dedicated to service and helping. 

“His father owned a bar and James worked there for him. So, they knew a lot of people, and when you know the whole community. The community gets to know your family,” Lovato said in explanation of James’ dedication to his community. “Ever since he was a young guy, he’s always been that kind of person  — a fighter.” 

As the post commander, Pino said James was always focused on “veterans and their families. He would get frustrated but only about things that were really important, that you should be frustrated about. He just kept plugging along and got things done.” 

That quiet plugging away was recognized several times. In 1994, James was the recipient of the Jefferson Award. Presented by the American Institute for Public Service,  the award was established in 1973 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and U.S. Sen. Robert Taft to identify and honor outstanding public service that has generally gone unrecognized. 

That same year, James received the Profile of Courage from the New Mexico Legislature, acknowledging his service to his country and community.  

In 2022, he was nominated for and received a Quilt of Valor, a literal quilt imprinted with details of his military service that he could be draped in to help comfort and heal him from being “touched by war.” 

A Little League and soccer coach, baseball fan, father and grandfather and Aggie for life, James was many things to many people.  

“He was a hero to a lot of people,” Rosie says quietly, looking at the items in her living room that represent a lifetime of service and love. “He was my hero.” 

Funeral services with full military honors for James will be held on Friday, April 26, at Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church. A visitation will take place at 8:45 a.m., with a Rosary at 9:15 a.m., followed by a Mass at 10 a.m. James will then be placed to rest at the Our Lady of Belen Memorial Gardens immediately following the Mass.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.